What Makes a Government “More Effective”?

Ruy Texeira argues for something near and dear to my heart, more effective government:

Make no mistake: a more effective government is the public’s priority, not a smaller government. In a survey I helped conduct for the Center for American Progress’s Doing What Works government reform project, we found that, by a decisive 62 to 36 margin, the public said their priority for improving the federal government was increasing its efficiency and effectiveness, not reducing its cost and size. Significantly, we found an identical result among the independents in our survey.

Unfortunately, Ruy’s post is focused on offering slogans rather than solutions:

One good start would be to highlight all the money that can be saved through various agency reforms: cutting the fat out of federal procurement; modernizing information technology; stopping improper payments; increasing tax compliance; and so on.

Yes, the familiar “waste, fraud, and abuse”. The utter insignificance of all of those issues in the context of the total federal budget aside (all other functions of government could be eliminated and the military budget could be cut to zero and, as long as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and interest on the debt aren’t touched we’d still be running a sizeable deficit), it doesn’t address some important questions. What does it mean for government to become more effective? How can that be realized?

I have written repeatedly here that I am not one of those who believes that everything that government does is wrong but I don’t believe that everything that government does is right, either. I agree with the formula attributed to George Washington that “government is a dangerous servant and a fearful master” (it was probably written by Upton Sinclair).

Let me give an example. Free markets in the 19th century didn’t produce healthful food or safe and effective pharmaceuticals. Government actions were required for that. Should we construe that as suggesting that the 19th century is a perfect model for the 21st century and that a larger, more powerful FDA run along the same lines as it’s run now would be more effective? I don’t think so.

Here’s another. I think that building codes and zoning requirements, in concept, are benign. You may recall that a couple of years back I went through a year-long ordeal to get the additional on our house approved which included at least a dozen appointments and face-to-face meetings with various city functionaries. Why doesn’t the city require that plans be submitted in AutoCAD Drawing Interchange Format (or the equivalent) and that most of this activity be carried out electronically? It would change very little in what the people submitting plans for approval are doing—nobody uses a draftsman anymore, practically all such plans are computerized already. I don’t think there’s anything particularly sinister in what’s going on, I just think that the city is stuck with old operational models. That it takes more time from more city employees may be thought of by some as a beneficial outcome but I think that in reality it’s just a leftover.

I think that a government is more effective when its mission statement isn’t overwhelmed by its secondary effects. Even the most ardent supporter of President Obama’s economic policies must surely admit that their record has been mixed. However, the record for those who’ve produced these policies is not mixed: they’ve all done very well by their stints in government service, going on to positions that are not only more highly compensated than their jobs as advisors but in many cases more highly compensated than the jobs they became advisors.

There’s a question and its converse that are interesting. Is a larger government inherently less effective? Is a smaller government inherently more effective? I have an opinion and an intuition on these questions.

I think that all other things being equal larger government is inherently less efficient and less effective. The cost of a bureaucracy does not increase linearly with size—the cost grows on the order of n log n or faster. Similarly, a larger government is not necessarily more effective. Effectiveness isn’t a function of size or even what is done. It resides in how well matched what is done is in terms of what is needed. By that yardstick our government isn’t very effective at all.

Unfortunately, a smaller government is no guarantee of effectiveness. I’m sure that many people consider their state, county, or city governments worse than the federal government.

6 comments… add one
  • Eric Blair Link

    You got that right. State, county and city (especially county and city) governments are usually the most corrupt of all, because they’re so small that one can generally get away with all sorts of shenanigans, plus their size usually means they are stuck right smack in the middle of the 19th century.

  • john personna Link

    Did you see When States Default: 2011, Meet 1841?

    I guess that example wasn’t handy to early commentators, but as we might expect, what goes around comes around.

  • Free markets in the 19th century didn’t produce healthful food or safe and effective pharmaceuticals.

    Focusing on food, what exactly is the evidence that food was unhealthy? I know about The Jungle but was the food that was routinely consumed by millions tainted? Seems there would be some evidence of this. I understand that meat packing in that era might have used revolting practices, but was the resulting product adulterated on a wide scale?

    Consider me a bit skeptical considering the portrayal of Rockafeller/Standard Oil. Portrayed as some sort of evil monopolist when the price of kerosene actually declined. While it might have practiced limit entry pricing the negative impacts typically associated with monopoly are no nearly as clear cut.

  • steve Link

    “Focusing on food, what exactly is the evidence that food was unhealthy? I know about The Jungle but was the food that was routinely consumed by millions tainted?”

    Ever see those old movies where the quarantine signs go up? The 1800s saw several epidemics of cholera, typhoid and other goodies. What is hard to sort out, is how much of that was just food poisoning. The science to diagnose was not very good and the symptoms overlap. I suspect that the food sold in local markets was reliable as you could always go shoot the guy who sold you bad stuff. As people moved into towns and sources became unknowable, it would have been less safe and likely accounted for many of those epidemic deaths.

    Anyway, I am pretty agnostic on the size of government. I suspect smaller is better, at least partially because it might represent a more functional society, though at some level it clearly aligns with the opposite. I would note that the number of federal, civilian workers has not changed much for the last 40 years or so.


  • The way I look at it is value for money and the sad reality is that we are spending more and get less value for our tax dollar than a lot of OECD countries. I don’t assume that cutting spending will create better value, nor do I think increasing revenue/spending will create more value, so I’m generally skeptical of partisan solutions.

  • steve,

    So its just speculation then. Thanks.

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